Grant for women expected to benefit all faculty in time
 
PULLMAN – After nearly seven years of effort by faculty and staff, WSU was awarded a $3.75 million National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant in September. Aimed at increasing representation of women in the sciences and technology, the grant outlines strategies that may ultimately provide spinoff benefits for all university departments and faculty.
 
Tying in with strategic plan goals to diversify the faculty, the grant promises a major step forward in enhancing recruitment, retention and advancement of women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
 
Robert Bates, principal investigator (PI) on the grant and director of research and graduate education at WSU Vancouver, has been involved with the project since 2001. Over the years, he and a core group of committee members developed three separate proposals; the latest was successfully funded.
 
“This proposal was the most focused and effective for really changing the university environment,” said Bates. “Not only in how we identify and hire women in the STEM disciplines, but also how we support our faculty in general and help them become successful in their careers.”
 
The grant offers innovative programs ranging from improved childcare options and partner accommodation to leadership training and external mentor agreements.
 


Leaky pipeline
 
Though recent efforts to step up recruitment at WSU have resulted in some success, only 11 percent of tenure-track and tenured faculty in STEM departments are women. According to Amy Wharton, director of the College of Liberal Arts at WSU Vancouver and co-PI on the grant, the numbers are low for a variety of reasons. She characterizes the problem as a leaky academic pipeline, which begins in early childhood with stereotypes about girls not being good in math and continues into college and graduate school at specific transition points.
 
Candis Claiborn, dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture and co-PI on the grant, said both men and women are “leaked” along the academic pathway during the transition from graduate school to tenure track and eventual full professorship.  Personal milestones like marriage and child birth are other leak points which “disproportionately affect women,” she said.
 

Tenure track and life demands
 
When hired on the tenure track, assistant professors must commit to five or six years of intense research and teaching. For women, pregnancy and childbirth or care giving to the elderly may interfere. WSU allows the “tenure clock” to stop for up to a year after childbirth. Work is in progress to permit the clock to stop for other situations and for men who are primary care givers.
 
“We want to make it possible for people to be outstanding researchers while not neglecting their children or elderly parents,” said Wharton. “This grant is trying to transform the university so people are better able to balance their academic careers and families.”
 

Four initiatives
 
The grant proposal focuses on three colleges: Engineering and Architecture; Sciences; and Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. Four major initiatives will be implemented across the WSU system through establishment of the Excellence in Science and Engineering (EXCELinSE) Center. Each initiative contains innovative ideas either imported from other university ADVANCE programs or developed uniquely for WSU. The initiatives are:
 

1. Preparing and recruiting a diverse faculty,
to increase awareness of academic career opportunities for STEM Ph.D. students through the summer doctoral fellows program. Soon-to-be Ph.D. graduates are recruited to WSU to attend workshops and connect with mentors, opening doors for them to pursue careers with the university.
 
2. Work/life, to address issues of child care, elder care, partner accommodation and other concerns. WSU has teamed up with the University of Idaho to offer the “Dual Career Partnership” for academic couples who are relocating to the area. Funding will be provided to temporarily help a trailing partner establish him or herself professionally at either WSU or UI.
 
3. Leadership training, to build on leadership strategies for department chairs, including a renewed focus on unintentional biases. According to Claiborn, department and climate issues have a huge impact on faculty, ultimately affecting whether they are retained or advanced. Enhanced leadership training and external mentoring programs are planned.
 
4. Institutionalizing transformation, to oversee organization, monitoring and assessment of the grant’s institutional progress and dissemination of those results across the WSU system. This will be carried out through the EXCELinSE Center to be led by Gretal Leibnitz, assistant director, and Alex Tan and Wharton, co-directors.
 
Bates and Claiborn are excited about the potential of the overall program and believe the university will see an increase in women faculty in STEM disciplines as a result of these initiatives.
 
“WSU has already demonstrated its willingness to institutionalize faculty friendly policies, so I feel confident that … this NSF ADVANCE grant will have good institutional support and a high likelihood of success,” said Claiborn.
 
For more information on the strategic plan and diversity issues, see ONLINE @ www.strategicplan.wsu.edu.